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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Reign of Herod

Through a combination of political cunning, good luck, and an occasional murder, King Herod retained his Roman support, his throne, and his life. Presenting a Hellenistic, assimilated image to the empire while emphasizing a more Jewish perspective to his local constituency, Herod survived and prospered during the battle between Octavian and Antony. Domestically, he had to withstand unrest caused by overtaxation, famine, and religious zeal, as well as continuing threats from the surviving Hasmoneans. He also had to control a mixed and not always friendly population consisting not only of Jews and Greeks but also of Samaritans, Syrians, and Arabs. It was a formidable challenge.

The first major crisis began in 36 when Herod's patron, Antony, still living lavishly as the ruler of the eastern part of the empire, married his equally lavish lover, Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt. This marriage was deplored by most of Italy, and especially by Octavian, for it suggested not only a lack of loyalty to Rome and its traditions, but also a repudiation of Antony's wife Octavia, Octavian's sister. Herod himself was not particularly well liked by the Egyptian queen, who wanted his lands. Cleopatra obtained Judea's coastal cities as well as Jericho during Herod's early time in office, but she did permit him to lease these territories.

The animosity between Rome and Egypt, and between the erstwhile brothers-in-law, escalated until 31, when Octavian defeated Antony at the battle of Actium. Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, and Egypt fell directly into Roman hands. Octavian lost an in-law, but he gained the grain of Egypt for his empire, and a new title (Augustus—the “exalted one”) for himself. During his rule, the Roman Empire extended its borders and brought peace to its territories (the Pax Romana).

Among Octavian's earliest acts was to receive Herod. Although previously Antony's ally, Herod courageously admitted his past errors and pledged his loyalty to the new emperor. Following his practice of leaving client kings in place, and impressed by Herod's political acumen, Octavian accepted his support and granted him not only the lands he had leased from Cleopatra but also her holdings in Samaria and east of the Jordan.

Herod rebuilt Samaria, which he renamed Sebaste (from the Greek word for Augustus), and he erected there a temple to the emperor. He also built a port city, which he named Caesarea in the emperor's honor. Other projects included creating an elaborate winter palace in Jericho, reinforcing the former Hasmonean complex on Masada, and opening several areas for agricultural cultivation. To fund such enterprises as well as his extensive building in Jerusalem, Herod adapted the Hasmonean taxation system. Much of the population, particularly in Galilee, was overburdened with the taxes due to Herod and to Rome as well as the smaller contributions made to the Temple, although archaeological investigation has yielded evidence of ornate homes in the suburbs of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Herod may have improved parts of the economy with his various projects. The construction provided substantial employment opportunities, and the increase in agricultural production offset some of the exactions due in taxes.

Within Jewish territory, Herod showed considerable sensitivity to his population's religious concerns. His coinage did not depict human images, he refrained from placing statues in public buildings, and he began the remodeling of the Second Temple, although in Hellenistic style. Not completed until 64 CE, during the reign of Herod's great-grandson Agrippa II, this project employed thousands, from artisans to priests. Even within Jerusalem, however, Herod's primary allegiance was to Rome; thus he affixed a golden eagle to the gate of the Temple. When the scribes Judas and Matthias, hearing a rumor that the terminally ill Herod was dying, attempted to remove it, the king had them and their associates tortured to death.

Herod the Great not only engaged in extensive Temple renovations, he also controlled the high priesthood. By appointing members of the priestly families of Babylonia and Alexandria, he sought to bolster his support from the Diaspora population. Unfortunately, his appointments did little to enhance the reputation of the office or peace within his own household.

The high priesthood would remain a point of tension. Herod first appointed Ananel, from a Babylonian priestly household. The decision did not please Mariamme's mother, Alexandra, who attempted to have her son Aristobulus III succeed to the office; aided by Cleopatra she convinced Herod to fulfill her wishes. But Aristobulus gained great popularity with the people, so in 35 Herod arranged to have him drowned. A pattern was set: charging them with treason (perhaps rightly), Herod executed his beloved Mariamme in 29 and Alexandra in 28. By the end of his reign, he had also executed numerous nobles who either in fact or in his imagination challenged his status, his sons by Mariamme, Alexander and Aristobulus, and his son Antipater by his first wife, Doris. Such activities prompted Augustus's quip that “I would rather be Herod's pig [hys] than his son [huios].” Although the historicity of the “slaughter of the innocents” in Matthew 2 is questionable in the absence of other testimony—the story probably arose out of the evangelist's strong interest in connecting Jesus to Moses (see Exod. 1–2 on the deaths of the Hebrew children) and reflects the folkloric motif of endangered heroes—doing such a thing would not have been out of character for Herod.

Beset by Nabatean conflicts and domestic disputes, Herod's final years granted him no peace. According to Josephus, his death brought no quietude either. Aware he was dying, Herod arranged to have many political prisoners executed at the time of his death, so that there would be general mourning.

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